Anyone who has caught an episode of reality television can easily glean that by signing release forms, contestants relinquish all dignity, resembling nothing so much as test subjects in controversial psychological experiments of the middle 20th century. Look to Philip Zimbardo’s mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University psych building, for example, which seemed to locate the germ of sadism in us all, or Stanley Milgram’s ersatz electroshocks, which came to a similar conclusion about authority, cruelty and the power of context. Another famous experiment stress-tested preschoolers’ willpower by leaving them alone with a whole bowl of marshmallows after they were told they could enjoy a single mouthwatering treat straightaway or wait fifteen minutes and eat two. Children with a solid long game resisted temptation, a trait that apparently inoculated them against obesity and addiction in adulthood. Against these classic and rather severe findings, the chirpy self-help dictums of pop psychology constitute a form of cognitive dissonance. Are we moral beings with a capacity for selfless love and self-discipline, or craven specimens of self-interest with an intense lust for power? A Kantian might say that this is the very difference between the worldly, contingent self and the transcendental self; a canny producer would supply enough tequila and cash to split the difference.
In 1984, the University of California–Berkeley neuroscientist Marian Diamond received four blocks of Albert Einstein’s preserved brain tissue. These were a gift from Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a Princeton-based pathologist who autopsied the physics genius in 1955 and somehow maintained personal possession of the brain. Diamond was pleased to examine the specimens, in which she discovered a much higher number of glial cells per neuron than in the average organ. This shored up the insight for which she was most famous: that our brains grow and change from enriching activity, and conversely wither from a lack of stimulus. It seems obvious now, but the concept of neuroplasticity was revolutionary when Diamond proposed it in the early 1960s. For stroke victims and those suffering from other forms of trauma, her findings were (and still offer) a crucial dose of hope. My Love Affair with the Brain (2016), which documents five years of her life and work, was released shortly before her death last July, and is well worth seeking out.
The University of Toronto’s Scientific Instruments Collection has a quixotic aspect—it is a noble endeavour as well as an eccentric one, more than a little impractical but also somehow worthwhile. The cross-disciplinary effort seeks to showcase old tools and defunct technologies, and has progressed in fits and starts over the years, excavating the dusty closets of a dozen fields, from astronomy and botany to zoology (and the catch-all category ‘Unidentified’, naturally). Should you be inclined to inspect these curios in person, you can attend ‘Untold Stories’ at the Victoria College building of the St George Campus until April 2018. Alternatively, there are plenty of intriguingly peculiar things in the online psychology collection, such as an array of tests less famous than Rorschach’s inkblots: Ferguson Form Boards, Kohs Colored Cards, Stutsman’s Colored Cubes and the so-called Tweezer Dexterity Test. The Mechanical Lantern Slide, ‘a rectangular piece of wood cut in a stepped fashion, with metallic plates’, projects a moving image of a skeleton. Why this item is housed here and not under, say, ‘Anatomy’, is anyone’s guess—perhaps the limber bones awaken a forgotten phobia?
Raymond Champs, narrator of Jason Porter’s debut novel Why Are You So Sad?, is hardly champing at the bit of life. Waking up for him ‘feels like pulling a sequoia out of the earth with your bare hands.’ He has an epiphany of sorts when he realises that existential despair doesn’t happen in a vacuum—that in fact it is a unifying malady. ‘The thought hit me. Smacked me as true. Its flawless pitch rang on and on…. We were moody and sluggish and complacent, and we were too busy eating things to take notice.’ An illustrator for a Scandinavian furniture behemoth called LokiLoki, Ray is tasked with drawing a potato-shaped mascot on the instruction sheets that accompany boxes of unassembled products. No wonder he’s skeptical of the company motto, ‘Everyday Living Is Getting Better Every Day.’ He decides to test his theory that modern life is permeated by sadness distributing to his co-workers a survey of searching questions: Is today worse than yesterday? Would you equate falling out of love to the way that gum loses its flavor, or more to the way all food loses its heat? Ray’s interior life is certainly caustic, fixated on ‘third-world viruses that sold newspapers and dissolved brains’ and windshields covered in dead insects: ‘what it must feel like to have a speeding plane of shatterproof glass catapulting your exoskeleton into flatness.’ Yet his complaints betray his tender attention to the everyday suffering in our midst. Why Are You So Sad? is a sincere satire, a novel with both bite and beauty.
Climate change, not to mention the riven political climate afflicting late-capitalist democracies, is creating mass upheaval on a scale arguably not seen since World War Two. And upheaval, in turn, points inevitably to slime mould. According to Jean-Paul Gagnon, an associate professor of politics at the University of Canberra, the survival instincts of these single-celled organisms have lessons to impart about cooperating for the common good. Inspired by research that has made use of them to advance computer technologies and study traffic congestion, Gagnon sought to investigate what he identified as the moulds’ sensible collaborative tendencies. They begin as single spores that eat bacteria and reproduce by mitosis; as their numbers grow, the moulds learn to procreate sexually. When they discover food to be in short supply and the patch of soil they call home too small, they release a chemical that triggers a new phase wherein they unite to form a slug-like super-entity. 'They depend on each other for survival,’ notes Gagnon. It’s that frame of mind which he hopes the main actors in our political economy can revive in the populace and themselves: ‘If they don't form a consensus on when to go from being individuals… to joining up and forming this slug to get out of starvation, then they risk death.’
Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett, is an introspective, almost claustrophobic collection of stories that is nonetheless intensely absorbing, set on the ‘most westerly point of Europe, right next to the Atlantic ocean’—the wild west coast of Ireland, in other words, where Bennett’s unnamed the narrator has retreated to ruminate. An abandoned doctoral thesis haunts the narrator’s language and tone; you get the sense she really didn’t want to write it, yet the setback has dinged her pride and left her befuddled as to next steps. She veers between archly high-falutin and tartly self-skeptical, with prose that is consistently vivid and hyper-specific. Bennett masterfully captures the texture of everyday things we tend to overlook: ‘rich, almost igneous’ mud, for instance. ‘For some reason I find mundane objects rather poignant—I love still-life paintings, they are suggestive of life,’ she told The Paris Review. ‘I respond to atmosphere much more than plot, [which] gathers much more effectively around a lone voice, just like it does around a single candle flame perhaps. I’ve always been drawn to the misfit, the outcast, the exile, the hopeless case with the wicked sense of humor.’
Elif Şafak, one of Turkey’s preeminent novelists, also writes song lyrics. Last June she joined BBC4 Radio host Kirsty Young to ponder the importance of music, the thorniness of identity politics, her reasons for writing (beginning with a tiny turquoise notebook she received as an eight-year-old) and her peripatetic upbringing as the daughter of a diplomat mother and a father she saw ‘three or four times in [her] entire life’, all interspersed with informal liner notes for the musical selections she’d take with her to a hypothetical desert island—Mumford & Sons’ ‘Babel’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ and Apocalyptica’s cover of [Metallica’s] ‘Nothing Else Matters’ among them. Şafak’s eclectic taste extends to the interests expressed in her fiction: Asya, a Johnny Cash fan, imagines life in America from the redoubt of an all-female Turkish household in The Bastard of Istanbul; a Jewish-American housewife’s story dovetails with a retelling of the life of the 13th-century poet Rumi in The Forty Rules of Love; a Kurdish family in Yorkshire commits an honour killing in Honour. The trove of insights in this interview, not to mention the richness of Şafak’s voice and her choice of songs, makes it mandatory listening. ‘To be human is to embody several coexisting and conflicting selves’, she asserts. ‘It is the job of the novelist to peel off those layers and show the heart that beats underneath.’
The Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong makes dreamlike, self-referential films that build on each other to impart an overarching impression of life as a politically outspoken female filmmaker in a politically volatile environment. Dao khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark) is a sequel of sorts to her first film, 2009’s Jao nok krajok (Mundane History), a sharp look at patriarchy. It is a film within a film, the nested story of a young woman trying to make a movie under the watch of a military regime. Visra Vichit-Vadakan, the director of 2013’s Karaoke Girl, plays Ann, a filmmaker preoccupied with the events of October 1976 (when state forces and paramilitaries killed protesting students at Thammasat University). Suwichakornpong creates disorienting switchbacks in the presentation of time—a vision of the future soon starts to resemble the past we thought we’d left behind—and of personhood, with the actress Atchara Suwan triple-billing as a waitress, a cleaning woman and a monk. We never fully suspend our disbelief in a film that seems to wink at us with perceptual frames—recurrent shots of shutters, windows, the lens of a camera—and seduce us with surreal hallucinations. It’s a preternatural narrative that stays tethered to reality; dao khanong’s literal translation is ‘wild star’, which sounds otherworldly, but also denotes a neighbourhood on the western outskirts of Bangkok.
The Quiet Garden Movement opens greenspace in private homes and places of worship to anyone seeking somewhere to pray, reflect or relax—the better to offset the fervent pitch of urban life and resultant stresses. There are Quiet Gardens in Noordhoek, outside Cape Town; Manaia in New Zealand; and other tranquil spots all over the world, but only a handful offer accommodation. Kristbergs Rusthåll, a bed-and-breakfast operated by Eva-Lotta and Björn Kalman in Borensberg, Sweden, sits on the edge of beautiful, eminently fishable Lake Boren. A charming house with a steep stucco roof, warm yellow walls, lots of blond timber and a library, the building is ample, rustic and uplifting. Guests cook together in a large communal kitchen, read by candlelight, explore the spacious grounds and occasionally muck in with the weeding.
Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.
‘The mind is the most capricious of insects—flitting, fluttering.’